Sometimes we have such silly dreams we wake up laughing – at least that happens to me!

Words convey meaning and evoke certain images in our minds.

I had one such  silly dream this morning! I dreamt I had moved to a country where the words “yes I would like,” were the same

words used for “I’m horny” in my local language. It was a crazy dream because imagine, throughout the dream people were having conversations and inevitably someone would have to say “yes I would like” so even an offer for a drink would elicit a response that sounded inappropriate in my language. Even a shopping trip became difficult in this dream because expressing what I wanted sounded bizarre!

Anyway, so much for silly dreams but guess what? In this world, it is very possible that seemingly innocent sounding words in one language could mean something crude and unspeakable in another. In the interests of cultural diversity we have no choice but to learn to be sensitive  to such differences. And to prove this, here are a few examples that illustrate what I mean.

I’m currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, and much as there are similarities in Swahili, spoken here and the Shona language back home – sometimes the same words mean something totally different. In Swahili, “mapenzi” is love and a girl’s name which means “beloved,” while in Shona, the same word is the plural for lunatics, the singular being “benzi.”

A family friend caused a stir when she called her child “Ngozi.” In the Nigerian Igbo language the word, also a popular name, means blessing while in Shona and Ndebele back home, it means danger. In fact, in Shona it has a worse meaning because “ngozi” also means a curse that haunts a lineage when a family member commits murder and does not compensate the aggrieved family.  

Not so long ago, I worked with a Zambian colleague whose daughter was called Chende, which I’m told is quite a lovely common name for girls in that country. Well, my colleague’s daughter had a hard time introducing herself at school. Naturally it became difficult for people to keep a straight face whenever she was introduced. Thankfully she also had an English name that she was forced to use throughout her schooling years in Zimbabwe because Chende, in Shona means testicles. Being a primary school child, one can imagine how traumatic the experience must have been!

The name Tunde, originally a name for a native of Nigeria which also means “returns,” conveys images of the natural act of urination because in Shona, tunda is to urinate. There’s also a safari company in Kenya called “Tunda Safaris and Tours.”

Remember Princess Diana’s flame Dodi Al Fayed? Well, in Shona, his name means human waste, so not surprisingly, the name caused quite some excitement in my part of the world.

Marketers can also testify to the fact that products have failed because of brand names that sounded great in one language and awful in another. In 1988, the General Electric Company (GEC) and Plessey combined to create a new telecommunications giant. A brand name was desired that evoked technology and innovation. The winning proposal was GPT for GEC-Plessey Telecommunications. A not very innovative name and not suggestive of technology and a total disaster for European branding. GPT is pronounced in French as “J’ai pété” or “I’ve farted”[1].   

We’ve also heard of taglines that were creative in one language and a total disaster in another. For example, Pepsi’s “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave,” in Chinese. Another amusing one is General Motors’ Chevy Nova, which failed in Latin America because “Nova” means “It doesn’t go” in Spanish. Ford failed in Brazil when they introduced Pinto to the market. In Brazilian Portuguese slang “pinto” is “small penis”[2].

And for the regular traveller, the classic is the Austrian town of F***ing! Yes, there really is a place in Austria called F***ing. In fact they liked the name so much, it seems that they also have several F***ng roads[3]. I can imagine how people from that place introduce themselves. “Hi, I’m so and so from F***ing.”